Rounding off the 2018 events calendar, Manchester kicked off the first ever Northern Power Futures Festival, a series of events founded by the inspiring Simone Roche MBE, to champion Northern success and facilitate conversations on its future. After an opening session from Andy Burnham, I was invited to sit on a panel to discuss where science and technology is taking us in the next 20 years, and what this means for the North.

I’m not a scientist (that box was fortunately ticked by several other panellists), but having spent decades working on tech, skills and education PR campaigns, I do know about the importance of “selling” science, and the integral role that communications plays in inspiring people and shaping the future.

In the course of my career, I have seen Northern innovation flourish. When I first started out, towns and cities in the North had a real problem with attracting and retaining talent: employers feared a “brain drain” as the brightest young people were seduced away by the capital. We are now seeing the reverse of this as people are falling over themselves to move here, thanks to the globally recognised identity the North of England has built for many areas of business.

Among others, we can boast the National Graphene Institute in Manchester, the Material Innovation Factory in Liverpool, and the National Innovation Centre for Ageing in Newcastle – all of which can legitimately claim to be world leaders in their field.

The establishment of these centres has enabled the North to become the de facto leader in some niche fields, and own the national and international narrative. This leads to more investment, which in turn leads to better research outputs, and the ability to attract and retain the best minds.

That being said, there are still significant disparities between the North and the South in some areas. My fellow panellist, Dr Hakim Yadi OBE, CEO of the Northern Health Science Alliance (NHSA), spoke about regional inequalities in health that desperately need addressing. The recent Health for Wealth report published by the NHSA showed that if the North’s health outcomes matched those of the South, we would add £13.2bn to the economy per year.

The next 20 years need to see that gap bridged, and scientific research, technology, education and business all need to come together to achieve that – particularly to tackle preventable diseases, mental health conditions, and to support people back into work following illness.

 

Another topic we discussed was the balance between progress and privacy.

If we think back to what life was like in 1998, the next two decades will see technology transform every aspect of our lives again on a similar scale, even changing the very nature of relationships that have existed for centuries, such as the traditional one between customer and provider.

I believe one of the defining trends of the next few years will be that, increasingly, different technologies will speak to each other to form more of a holistic offering to consumers, something we have already started to see happening with open banking. This leads to obvious questions about data – who’s accessing it, who owns it, and what are the boundaries on sharing?

This train of thought would terrify my parents’ generation – who tend to consider even a mobile push notification to be invasive – but inevitably my children’s generation (as is always the case with the adoption of technology) will intuitively embrace progress.

Open data has the potential to actually empower customers. As everyone comes to recognise the value inherent in their own data, the customer will hold more bargaining power and will be able to expect perks in return for data access, as we move away from cash-based transactional models.

Whatever the future holds, I have no doubt that the North will contribute significantly to the innovation needed to get us there, and it was great to be part of an open forum dedicated to promoting this. The next Northern Power Futures event will be held in Newcastle, 10-11th February – you can get your tickets here.